Friday, April 01, 2016

Education Technology - Is It All Good?

First of all, I'm sure I'm a dinosaur as far as education technology is concerned. I come from an old school where HW assignments are done on paper, and students submit them to a TA or instructor to have them graded. Or a situation where students do their quizzes or exams by writing them on paper and submit them after completion.

I'm still not used to an education system where students do their HW online, and even do their weekly quizzes and exams online. I'm sure there are many different systems and ways of doing this. However, I still see two things from the students perspective: (i) it is tedious to draw a sketch, which is often needed in tackling physics problems, and (ii) it is tedious to write mathematical equations.

Because of this, a lot of online exercises often simply ask you to enter just a number, or pick from a multiple choice of solutions. This is what I often deal with right now with students' homework assignment. Oh sure, I have the option of assigning my own HW questions if I wish, but the majority of the instructors opt for the former, and I need to be consistent with others.

So what problems do I see with this education methodology? First of all, you do not get to see how the students approach the problem. All you see are answers, and if they get them right, or wrong. You don't know if the students don't know where to start, or if they simply make some silly math error along the way. You cannot diagnose if they have a serious problem or not in understanding the material.

Secondly, despite my strong recommendations that they actually write down and work out the problem till they get the answer, and then enter that answer online, most students simply scribbled out their work to get an answer and once they are done, the scribble is either discarded, or they can't comprehend what they did when they go back to it later on. They do not have a clear detail on what they did, be it right or wrong, that they can learn from later on. So how exactly do they revise for their exams?

Seeing and understanding how problems are solved, and learning from mistakes, are the most effective means of understanding a topic and being able to solve problems. I think I kept most, if not all, of my upper/graduate-level physics class homework assignments (they are somewhere in boxes in the basement). So I don't know how the new generation of students learn and more importantly, RETAIN the stuff that they had learned and done.

The consequence from all of these is that, when they had to sit down for an exam, where they had to write down all the work, many students crashed! Despite being shown how to properly solve problems in class (I did numerous examples), many students still can't properly sketch out a problem (some didn't even bother to do one), and it was jaw-dropping how many still start off their work by writing in just numbers in an "equation", without first writing the symbolic form.

I've been trying to remedy that in subsequent classes that I taught. I have weekly written quizzes to get the students into the habit of solving problems properly, etc. But I think most of them already have the mindset of doing things online, because many of their other classes adopt this method of education. So my way of doing things are more of the "ancient" method of education. I continue to let then do HW assignments online just so they cover the same type of material as students in other similar classes, but I'm insisting that they do their quizzes the old fashion way.

I'm not a techno-phobia. In fact, I posted a blog entry on the easiest way to do lab notebooks using tablets. But in this case, technology may be a hindrance to learning. It may work in many other subject areas, but I somehow don't see it working in physics and mathematics (and maybe the rest of the STEM subjects). These are often not a plug-and-chug subject areas, and it is not conducive to online interface.



Unknown said...

I agree with the points you make here. Being able to sketch figures and write clear solutions are crucial skills that risk not being emphasized enough if the course relies to heavily on online forms. Thinking back on my own studies I wish I had spent more time practicing solving problems weekly. When I was a TA three years ago or so (in first year classical physics), we tried different ways to have the students solve one problem per week on their own, using pen and paper. This was hard to achieve and we couldn't make it mandatory for various reasons. Giving the students that completed the task a piece of candy in class didn't cut it, as it turned out.

I guess it's also tempting for the tutor to have an automated online system that saves him or her time. Anyway, I think it's worth being a dinosaur in this case.

Steve W said...

I will go one step further and say that the classes I enjoyed most in my studies were those where the professor also followed this approach in the lectures - standard old chalkboard lectures where each derivation or problem was worked out in detail, with steps and assumptions shown, and diagrams drawn to illustrate the key ideas.

One of the most important skills in physics education is developing an intuition about the solutions to problems. I think this is most readily developed by "playing" with the equations with pen and paper. The first year physics class at my institution was actually famous for never asking for numerical answers; all assignments required derivation of an expression for some final quantity in terms of some initial conditions. At the end, they would typically ask questions like, "What is the limit of your expression if m1 >> m2 ... explain why this makes sense." This approach forced students to develop a physical picture of the problem, and some intuition about the answer.